Andrea Perry – Two

Considering how much distance pop music has traveled in the half-century since Elvis Presley burst onto the cultural scene, it’s remarkably frustrating to consider how limited women continue to be within the field. While artistic freedom would seem to produce infinite breeds of female performers, the sexism embedded in the marketplace make all but a few of them invisible, leaving little but that which reinforces the notion that women are weak and submissive, from the sniveling of Tori Amos to the whorish posturing of Britney Spears. But travel a bit afield and you might bump into singer-songwriter Andrea Perry, a native of Austin, Texas who, in her own quiet way, does her best to smash up the system. Being a female who operates under the heading of singer/songwriter may not sound that revolutionary, and it might instead conjure up the familiar and insufferable image of a girl with an acoustic guitar strumming dully in a coffeehouse while crooning her ever-so-confessional poetry on top. Yet once again, Perry nimbly sidesteps that cliché and offers up something altogether different on her second album, the modestly titled Two.

Sounding as if it were recorded in an enchanted forest (it was actually done in a restaurant in Austin, although many people mistake one for the other), Two presents Perry’s unique aesthetic in highly economical terms, offering a dozen songs in a retro-sized 40 minutes. In other hands, such a move might seem like writer’s block, but in Perry’s case, it comes across as modesty and taste, an impression confirmed by the nature of the songs themselves. Despite her idiosyncrasies – and there are many – Perry is at heart a pop songwriter, and a very fine one at that. Though some tracks inevitably shine above others, all 12 display an assured sense of craft. The hooks are always repeated the right number of times, and the bridges always come just before repetitiveness sets in. Like the Beatles, perhaps her biggest point of reference, Perry is able to marry simple joys with depth and sophistication. The opener, “Bursting Through the Clouds,” is radio-friendly enough to sound like a hit single from an alternate universe, but its magnificent chord progression signals that its author is capable of not just grabbing attention but sustaining it. An even more daring balancing act comes in “I Think of Nothing,” which chugs along in a disorienting 5/4 while an ethereal melody floats above.

The accomplishments of Two are rendered all the more remarkable for the degree to which Perry is responsible for its sonic details. She plays guitar, bass, and keyboards and produces as well. She excels in all these areas, but the production is perhaps most striking. The pristine sound allows Perry’s many nuances to get the attention they deserve, and Perry’s liberal use of double-tracked singing gives her voice the honey glaze it sounds as if it were designed for. And though Perry’s life has been littered with frustrated attempts to learn new instruments, she sounds rather comfortable with each one she employs. Drummer Chris Searles, the only other musician on the album, is as sympathetic a partner as Perry could ask for, always keeping busy without intruding. Together, they swing and groove easily, giving the otherwise mellow songs the thrust they need to keep from stalling.

For all its other admirable attributes, what makes Two so charming is Perry’s attitude. In the liner notes, she writes that the album is dedicated to a deceased former bandmate, and even a cursory glance at her lyrics shows an ample amount of sad subjects, but her music clearly reveals an underlying and irrepressible joy, the sine qua non that lets Perry rise above the Sarah McLachlans of the world. She doesn’t always keep this adequately tempered, and if she has a weakness, it’s that she can be a shade too fey for her own good. From a strictly commercial standpoint, she may also be too subtle and elegant to break through in an increasingly clamorous and unlistenable pop milieu, but that’s a strike against the music business, not Perry. In a better world, Two might very well be a hit record, but in this one, however many or few people are able to hear it should consider themselves quite fortunate indeed.